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Airport Review: Chicago's O'Hare International Airport

In Yahoo Travel’s Airport Review series, we dissect everything you need to know — from check-in to take off to landing. Oh, and curious what it takes to get a perfect, 5-star rating? A hotel beyond security check — and not many pass the test.

Airport Review: Chicago's O'Hare International Airport

(Photo: Nick Harris/Flickr)

Airport Star Rating: 4 stars. A superhub for business travelers and connecting flights across the globe, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is the fifth busiest airport in the world. United Airlines uses O’Hare as its largest departure hub, and O’Hare has been touted often as the best airport in North America.

The Good: Landing at O’Hare is like getting a taste of what’s to come in the city of Chicago. Top-notch restaurants can be found in every terminal, and cleanliness is king at this incredibly busy, four-terminal airport. Plenty of roomy bathrooms feature automatic toilet seat covers and hand sanitizer. There are also lots of charging stations and high-end shopping options.

The Bad:  Delays. Everyone’s main gripe about O’Hare is getting delayed due to Chicago’s unpredictable and often brutal winter weather, especially around holidays. It’s so common, in fact, that O’Hare provides cots, blankets, and toiletries to what often amounts to hundreds of travelers stranded overnight at the airport.

Related: Airport Review: We Size Up the Texas-Sized Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

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The dreamy tunnel between Concourse B and Concourse C (Photo: Anne Worner/Flickr)

Walkability: O’Hare is huge, and if you are at a far-flung gate, expect a trek. That said, the airport offers assistance to passengers with disabilities as well as carts to transport people to connecting flights. To connect from Concourse B to Concourse C, United travelers can use the dreamy tunnel, where a moving walkway glides beneath an overhead light show, while a slow-moving rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” plays in the background. It’s quite relaxing.

Security and Immigration: You’ll always want to arrive two hours before your flight. Security is efficient and the TSA tends to be friendly, but long security lines with hour-long waits are not unheard of. The nice thing is that the security area is well staffed, and the lines are efficient and organized, even when incredibly long. A plus for environmentalists? There are sinks at security to dump out any liquids from bottled water or soda, and there is the option to recycle the plastic bottle there or keep it to refill at a drinking fountain once past security. Also, there is a Starbucks right outside the domestic security gate for early or late-night travelers jonesing for a java fix.

Delays: As mentioned before, weather delays are common at O’Hare. We’re talking 36-hour delays being a norm in bad weather. When weather is good, delays on domestic flights are not frequent, though traffic on the runway may ground your plane on the tarmac for a while.

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The United Terminal at Chicago O’Hare (Photo: t!m/Flickr)

Terminal 1: Often referred to as the United Terminal, T1 is an airy, industrial space filled with shopping and restaurants. The walkway connecting Terminal 1 to Terminal 2 is currently filled with glass art sculptures hanging from the ceilings — an homage to Chicago’s art scene. The hot restaurant to check out here is Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera. The famous chef’s airport outpost serves tortas (Latin-style sandwiches), chips and guac, salsa, salads, and fresh juices. If you need a last-minute souvenir, stop by Vosges for a gift box filled with made-in-Chicago chocolates.

Terminal 2: This terminal is the easiest to get to from security and contains concourses E and F, filled with gates for Delta, Air Canada, and US Airways. Each gate has a TV; charging stations are plentiful. It’s a big terminal, but dining options are slim. Skip Chili’s Too and Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap, and head to Wicker Park Sushi, located just past the security gates in the walkway connecting Terminals 1 and 2. Another great Terminal 2 perk? Three airline lounges for those with access, including, the Delta Crown Club (at ticketing), Northwest World Club Continental President’s Club (Concourse E), and United Club (Concourse F).

Related: Airport Review: The Lowdown on Montreal’s International Airport

Terminal 3: This is where you file the dreaded gates K19 and K20, which always feel as if they are miles from the security entrance. But this busy terminal services American Airlines, Jet Blue, Spirit AirlinesAlaska Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Japan Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Air Choice One. If you are traveling with little ones, they can keep busy at the Kids on the Fly playground, courtesy of the Chicago Children’s Museum. Travelers over 21 can kill time at Bubbles Wine Bar or Goose Island Beer Company. There is another Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless in this terminal as well.

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International Terminal at Chicago O’Hare (Photo: Eric Allix Rogers/Flickr)

Terminal 5: The International Terminal is easy to navigate and full of almost every international airport lounge imaginable. There is also an XpresSpa, where those with long layovers can get chair massages, pedicures, manicures, or even facials. If you’re arriving at O’Hare, customs is often a nightmare, but there is plenty of ground transportation and helpful agents once you are cleared. In April, after a $26 million upgrade, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled the new T5 at O’Hare, which includes 24 new shopping and dining spots and a redesigned TSA checkpoint.

Public Spaces: The Yoga Room on the mezzanine of Terminal 3 offers yoga mats and is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. A wall-mounted video monitor shows yoga exercise techniques set to soothing music. When you’re done with your asanas, check out the aeroponic garden across the way. It’s très zen.

Transportation: Taxis are easy to get from stands outside the gates. A favorite local taxi service is American Taxi, which can be booked in advance for pickup and drop-off. O’Hare also connects to the CTA Blue Line in the lower level of Terminal 2.

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The Hilton at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (Photo: Courtesy of Hilton)

Hotels: The Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel is located in Terminal 2 and within walking distance of the domestic airports. The fitness center is available to hotel guests, but those who are stuck in the airport for long periods of time can use the fitness center (include steam room, showers, and Jacuzzi) for a day rate. Catch just about any game at the Sports Edition Bar, which broadcasts up to 12 games simultaneously.

In Short: Though it can be overwhelming, O’Hare is clean, efficient, and packed with things to do. Which is especially important at this busy hub, where any frequent traveler is likely to get delayed at some point. Hey, at least there’s yoga and an optional day pass to a sauna available.

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